Pauline Maier
Pauline Maier
American Scripture:  Making the Declaration of Independence
ISBN: 0679454926
American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence
Pauline Maier shows us the Declaration as both the defining statement of our national identity and the moral standard by which we live as a nation. It is truly "American Scripture," and Maier tells us how it came to be—from the Declaration's birth in the hard and tortuous struggle by which Americans arrived at Independence to the ways in which, in the nineteenth century, the document itself became sanctified.

Maier describes the transformation of the Second Continental Congress into a national government, unlike anything that preceded or followed it, and with more authority than the colonists would ever have conceded to the British Parliament; the great difficulty in making the decision for Independence; the influence of Paine's Common Sense, which shifted the terms of debate; and the political maneuvers that allowed Congress to make the momentous decision.

In Maier's hands, the Declaration of Independence is brought close to us. She lets us hear the voice of the people as revealed in the other "declarations" of 1776: the local resolutions—most of which have gone unnoticed over the past two centuries—that explained, advocated, and justified Independence and undergirded Congress's work. Detective-like, she discloses the origins of key ideas and phrases in the Declaration and unravels the complex story of its drafting and of the group-editing job which angered Thomas Jefferson.

Maier also reveals what happened to the Declaration after the signing and celebration: how it was largely forgotten and then revived to buttress political arguments of the nineteenth century; and, most important, how Abraham Lincoln ensured its persistence as a living force in American society. Finally, she shows how by the very act of venerating the Declaration as we do—by holding it as sacrosanct, akin to holy writ—we may actually be betraying its purpose and its power.
—from the publisher's website

Search Audible
Video Clip Search is not available for this video.
TRANSCRIPT
American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence
Program Air Date: August 17, 1997

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Pauline Maier, author of "American Scripture," where did you get that title?
PAULINE MAIER, AUTHOR, "AMERICAN SCRIPTURE: MAKING THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE": It began, actually, as "Sacred Scripture." I was interested in how what was a workaday con--document of the Second Continental Congress became a sacred document for Americans. And I was told "Sacred Scripture" wasn't going to work because it would get classified as a religious book. So in the course of negotiations, we retitled the book.
LAMB: And what's this book about?
MAIER: It's about the Declaration of Independence, about how it was originally drafted, about the event, independence, that it announced to the world and particularly to the people of the United States and then how really the American people and ultimately, with the very eloquent help of Abraham Lincoln, redefined it into a document that served a very different purpose.
LAMB: Early on in the book you tell a story about two summers ago--1995.
MAIER: Yes.
LAMB: You were at a Woodrow Wilson scholars seminar and you walked across the street to the National Archives.
MAIER: Exactly.
LAMB: For what purpose?
MAIER: I wanted to look at what they were--advertised as our precious national documents, documents which I hadn't seen and which, in fact, scholars don't need to look at normally. There are so many facsimiles that works our--does our pur--serves our purpose perfectly well. But I wanted to see what the display was in the National Archives.
LAMB: And we're looking at that right now.
MAIER: We are. Yes.
LAMB: You said something about an altar.
MAIER: It looks like an altar. It looks like a church. It's--it's ma--it's encased in--the Declaration of Independence stands where the tabernacle or a monstrance would be --on an altar. On the face of the altar is the Constitution and what the National Archives calls the Bill of Rights. But there are enormous pillars. It's three steps up from the main floor in the rotunda National Archives. It is like a religious exhibit full of religious imagery. One--I have actually asked students who have visited this what they thought it was like, and I was expecting them to tell me it wasn't like an altar. The one student said it was like a tomb.
LAMB: What's this painting?
MAIER: This is --the wall to the left as you face the altar. It is the members of the Second Continental Congress. What we have here are the members of the drafting committee that Congress appointed to produce a text of the Declaration of Independence.
LAMB: Who is the fellow with the red hair standing in the middle?
MAIER: Ah, must be our boy Thomas Jefferson.
LAMB: But you said as people looked up there they were talking about George Washington--some of the tourists.
MAIER: They were. They were. George Washington, of course, is a prominent revolutionary for most Americans. They assumed he had to be there. They were looking for George Washington. But George Washington wasn't at Congress in July 1776. He was in New York heading the Continental Army.
LAMB: Do...
MAIER: The people were sure they saw him there.
LAMB: What else did you hear people say that surprised you about what they thought they were seeing in that room?
MAIER: Well, I'm--was interested in their responses. They thought the--I was struck by the mother saying--I took it to be the mother saying to her children, `Doesn't this make all of your history come alive?' And I wondered if it did make it come alive or if it somehow locked it in some sacrosanct quasi-religious past that was not reachable for most people.
LAMB: You write in your introduction the following: `Perhaps I should also explain that I bear no animus toward Jefferson. True, I once nominated him as the most overrated person in American history for an American Heritage survey.'
MAIER: Right.
LAMB: Why did you do that?
MAIER: Well, because he's been so mythologized that we almost los--lose the person. This is an old thing. I mean, this isn't new. For centuries now Jefferson has been largely mythologized. He's made bigger than life. He's portrayed as the--either the champion of virtually every a--every species of American freedom: gender equality, racial equality. Much of that, I mean, had nothing to do with the things he actually stood for actively in his life. He's given credit for things he didn't do and, I think, not gi--given credit for some of the things which he did quite brilliantly. On the other hand, if we're down, he's down. It's as if the image of--the self-image of the nation is reflected in what we think of Thomas Jefferson.
LAMB: Do people get mad at you in the academic world?
MAIER: Oh. Well, the academic world sort of used to idiosyncratic views. I find a lot of Jeffersonians are a little annoyed at what I say.
LAMB: What are they annoyed about?
MAIER: Well, I think they really think Jefferson is absolutely wonderful. And I think Jefferson is very wonderful, too. It's the mythologizing that I object to. He's an interesting man, but he gets credit with things he--as I say, he didn't do. The Jefferson Memorial wa--I guess that we'll talk about it a little later...
LAMB: Actually, we can talk about it now.
MAIER: OK.
LAMB: You do write about that also.
MAIER: I do as well, yes.
LAMB: What did you find there?
MAIER: Well, among other things, I found a passage that he didn't write.
LAMB: If you look up on the wall there, that's inside the Jefferson Memorial here in Washington. You can see there `certain inalienable rights,' and you can see it there up close...
MAIER: Yes. Yes. The printed version said `unalienable.' The earlier version said `inalienable.' And there's--it was a change that happened while the document was being printed, from `inalienable' to `unalienable.' And they go back and forth often.
LAMB: How long has that memorial been there?
MAIER: It's--it was dedicated in 1943.
LAMB: Who was responsible for changing the language that ended up on the wall?
MAIER: Well...
LAMB: Because, you know, when Conor Cruise O'Brien was here, he also had found something else that was changed on that wall.
MAIER: Ah, yes. Well, it was the Jefferson Memorial Commission that had to choose passages that would go on the panels and they were limited to, I think, 325 words. And so they had to cut what they were going to put on a panel.

First of all, it was clear they would use that most famous, I think, passage from the--from the second paragraph that begins, `We hold these truths to be self-evident,' but they included virtually the whole document, the whole sentence, I should say. That sentence is an extremely interesting and an extremely important one. It was written according to an 18th century mode where one phrase was piled on another phrase and the meaning came through at the end. And the culminating sentence asserts the right of revolution, the right of people to alter or destroy a government which is destructive of their rights and then to found another which, in their opinion, is more likely to serve their security and happiness. The part of--the last part was cut off. They didn't have enough space for that. But they did go through, at least, the right of revolution.

They sent the passage to President Franklin Roosevelt who said, `Lovely. Absolutely fine. But wouldn't it be nice if we had a passage from the final paragraph that is so familiar and so moving to people? And I will show you how you could do it.' And Franklin Roosevelt, of course, the Harvard man, sat down and made out an abbreviated version of the final paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, putting in ellipses--that is, dots which would show where words were left out, something the Jefferson Memorial Commission was not too scrupulous about doing.

And they then, of course, had much too long of a passage so they hacked it down further. They hacked off the right of revolution, which, incidentally, was the most important part for Thomas Jefferson throughout his life. He was a committed revolutionary. When he talked about the principles in the Declaration of Independence, I think it was the right of revolution which was primary in his mind. It was primary in 1776. In the 1820s he saw it as an inspiration to the oppressed throughout the world, to throw off their chains and to found--to realize the blessings of self-government as the Americans had done. But out it went. And we got a rather different passage with a rather different culminating statement, but one which was more useful for an established government. And that's what was put on the memorial.
LAMB: Make you mad?
MAIER: It doesn't make me mad. It's a reinterpretation of a basic document that happened over time. I think we make a great error if we think that memorials, whether the shrine in the National Archives or the Jefferson Memorial, are, in fact, faithful representations of the 18th century. What they often do is tell a great deal about the period in which they were built.
LAMB: Can you remember the first time you ever got interested in the Declaration of Independence?
MAIER: I was a freshmen at Radcliffe taking a course in political science, and it had assigned a passage from Locke's second treatise of government that sounded an awful lot like the Declaration of Independence. And I remember saying, you know, `This is amazing. This is where he got it!' And, of course, this is a big scholarly controversy. How much was he directly influenced by Locke? But, I mean, I remember this as a---my first year at--during my first year in college being enormously struck by the coincidence of language.
LAMB: A couple of months ago we checked in our--all the transcripts of the BOOKNOTES over the last eight years and looked for names that were most often repeated. The number one name out of all eight years' BOOKNOTES was John Locke.
MAIER: John Locke!
LAMB: What does that say? Who was he?
MAIER: Well, he was a 17th century Englishman who wrote second treatise on government, what, in a sense, laid down the basis of--or defined principles that were actually widely shared by other Englishmen at the time on the basis of the beginnings of government; that it's--an agreement among men to cre--it--it's a human creation. It isn't based simply on the will of God. People create--these rulers are there as the trustees of the people. I--if the--they violate the terms of that compact, the people, of course, have a right to overturn the government and found another.

It is the basic philosophy that came out in the Declaration of Independence. That doesn't mean that Jefferson cribbed it, however, as I thought in my innocent way. What I've since learned is that those ideas were virtually everywhere. He could get them directly from Locke. He could get them filtered from a large number of other places. Those ideas Americans encountered in the press, in sermons and, therefore, the lines that are most familiar to us didn't seem particularly noteworthy in the 18th century. Hardly anyone paid attention to them.
LAMB: You were at Radcliffe College, which was the women's college for Harvard?
MAIER: It--was. We called ourselves, gracefully, the `Annex.' We were still the Annex. We weren't yet actually Harvard students, as my daughter, who is class of '87, was. Yeah.
LAMB: And you say you first got interested when you made this comparison with John Locke and...
MAIER: Well, I remember this. You somehow feel something in your life has faded occasionally. Of course, I've spent most of my professional career studying the Revolution. And I--this is one of the--this confrontation with the Declaration my freshmen year is one of my most memorable experiences of that year. But I have to say I was also sent to Radcliffe College by the beneficence of a man who I had met who was a judge on the Minnesota Supreme Court, who found out that I had been accepted to this place called Radcliffe College, of which I had never heard.

And I d--met him, I was selling something at Montgomery Ward, and he met me on a panel and he said, `Where are you going to college?' I said, `I got accepted someplace out east called Radcliffe. Did you ever hear of it?' Well, he was a Yale graduate, he'd heard of it. At any rate, he went around and collected money from his rich friends--probably middle-class people like I am, you are, I would suspect today, to send me to Radcliffe College. His name was James Otis. Something providential.
LAMB: And did he send you to college?
MAIER: Well, they sent me to Radcliffe my freshmen year and, yes...
LAMB: Do you remember how much money they had to raise to...
MAIER: I think--well, I remember that the tuition in that year had gone up to $1,000, which was absolutely amazing to me because you could go to the University of Minnesota for four years for that much money.
LAMB: And you lived where at that time?
MAIER: In St. Paul, Minnesota.
LAMB: What was your family like?
MAIER: My father was a city fireman. My mother was a mother. And I was the oldest of five children.
LAMB: And had you been interested in government and things like this?
MAIER: I was very interested in government and in politics. I assumed I was going to go into journalism. And I went to Radcliffe College and got a hook in me on--on history.
LAMB: Do you have any idea how you got interested in the first place?
MAIER: You know, there is something about history that it is another dimension of human experience and you're attracted to it. I don't know. It--was--it had a complexity that was fascinating and I--as I think about it, it connects with other things; the novels I've liked, which are dealing with time as an element in human experience. It's-- just fascinating to me. And I think if American history didn't exist, any history would do. It was a way of getting at this dimension in human experience. It just fascinates me.
LAMB: What court was Judge Otis on?
MAIER: It was the Minnesota Supreme Court.
LAMB: Did you stay in touch with him?
MAIER: I stayed in touch with him and I stayed in touch with his wife, who was an absolutely wonderful woman who remarried later--Louise Otis--Geist Otis Nichols and who died in May; was a marvelous person who had, to my ino--immense joy, the chance to read this book in bound galleys and was very enthusiastic about it. I felt very pleased that it--that it pleased her.
LAMB: When did the judge die?
MAIER: Some years ago.
LAMB: Did he have a chance to see you be successful?
MAIER: Well, he knew about earlier books, but I think this book has--is probably the most accessible for people of those I have written.
LAMB: After you got out of Radcli...
MAIER: In non-academics, anyway.
LAMB: After you got out of Radcliffe, where'd you go?
MAIER: Well, I went for--for a year to the London School of Economics on a Fulbright, was married at the end of the year and then came back to do my graduate work at Harvard.
LAMB: Who'd you marry?
MAIER: I married Charles Maier, who is a historian, now a professor, at Harvard.
LAMB: You got your PhD in what?
MAIER: In American history. And I work with Bernard Bailyn, who was an eminent historian of early American--of early America at Harvard.
LAMB: So along the way, what did the old fireman think of all this?
MAIER: He watches with great pride. And people are very nice. He--collects all the books, and when people come in, he says, `Let me show you what my daughter did.' And my mother rolls her eyes and most people say, `He has a right to be proud of his child. Take it with very good grace.'
LAMB: Are they alive?
MAIER: My parents are both alive and well.
LAMB: And did he or your mother ever have an interest in history back in those days?
MAIER: No, I don't think so. It's my peculiarity within the family.
LAMB: So after you got your PhD, then what?
MAIER: I taught first at UMass-Boston, and then after, I think, nine years, got a fine chair--indeed, a wonderful professorship at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. But after--we were trying to put the family together. My husband was teaching at Duke and I was teaching in Wisconsin and that was rather distant. And we discovered that was not altogether a workable arrangement, and I had a chance to go back to MIT the next year. I did. He said, `I will move up the coast.' And he did it a few years later in one great leap so that he is at Harvard and I am a--and I am at MIT.
LAMB: And how many years have you been there?
MAIER: I have been there now 19 years. I have become...
LAMB: Teaching still?
MAIER: ...an old settler. Indeed, I came in 1978 and I'm still teaching.
LAMB: Now how much does this book mean to you? I mean, you've kind of alluded to it.
MAIER: The book means a fair amount. I mean, it is on a very focused subject, but I have been thinking and reading and writing on the Revolution now for, well, a quarter of a century. I'd like to think some of what I learned is--has made this story not just interesting, but accessible to people beyond the university.
LAMB: Now if you could get on the phone and call up the men, and they're all men in this story...
MAIER: Ah, who would I call?
LAMB: ...who would you call, who would you ask to have over to the house for dinner if you really wanted to get the straight scoop on the Declaration of Independence?
MAIER: Well, I would love to talk with John Adams, mainly because this is the guy who could talk. And he was acerbic. He never minced his words. He was straightforward. We now know most about the drafting of the Declaration on the basis of what he and Thomas Jefferson wrote in the decade before their death. Now that should put all of our little sort of warning flags up. I mean, you know, do you believe what people say--40 and 50 words--fir--40 and 50 years after the fact? I get things confused the next week, I mean, and this is a long time afterwards.

Nobody bothered to ask the questions, really, until after the War of 1812 when the younger generation of Americans became very interested in the revolutionary past and dedicated themselves to not only saving the documents of the time, which were being lost and separated and so on, but the memories of the revolutionaries who they realized were dying right and left, taking all kinds of knowledge with them. So they went out and asked people questions. Now that, of course, biases what we know. The survivors told the story and you have to take what they said and look at them against harder evidence from early on to sort of assess what's reliable.
LAMB: John Adams, number one?
MAIER: John Adams is number one. He got dismissed...
LAMB: Number two?
MAIER: Well, I guess Thomas Jefferson would not be a bad man to have for dinner. I would enjoy that.
LAMB: You talk a little bit in the book about his being a better writer than a speaker.
MAIER: Yes. This was, remember, an age of oratory. And Thomas Jefferson was well known for being a very poor public speaker. John Adams said he rarely spoke in public more than three sentences together. His talents lay elsewhere. His talents were in writing. The Congress, in a very interesting way, had a kind of a writer's corps, people who it could call upon to write its public pronouncements. John Dickinson of Pennsylvania was one of the favored writers and probably the most popular because he had written a set of newspaper essays already--1767, '68, sometime earlier--that had been widely copied in the newspapers, which, of course, is the television of the time, the public median--medium.
LAMB: Did you read all those, by the way?
MAIER: I re--oh, yes. I've read them all. They're wonderful. And people took them as a statement of the American position. He was one of the first great American heroes...
LAMB: John Dickinson?
MAIER: ...in a sense, John Dickinson, because people thought he spoke their thoughts and spoke them well. So he was very well known. He was, you know, quickly used to write documents and was the senior man, was senior to Jefferson, who, when he first came into Congress, was a rather young, unknown person, but whose talents--who--whose talents for writing were known nonetheless. And so the Congress quickly grabbed on him.
LAMB: Around the time that you were assembling this group, right after the Declaration of Independence was written and signed...
MAIER: Yes.
LAMB: ...John Adams would have been how old?
MAIER: Well, he would have been in his 80s, in his upper 80s and...
LAMB: No--but not in 1776?
MAIER: Oh, in 1776. Quick cal...
LAMB: Because he died in 1826.
MAIER: Quick calculation...
LAMB: Thirties?
MAIER: Thirties, forties. Yeah.
LAMB: So...
MAIER: So he was still a young man.
LAMB: ...he would have been in his 30s and Thomas Jefferson would have been about how old?
MAIER: A little younger. About five years younger. Yeah.
LAMB: So also in his 30s?
MAIER: Yes. They're young men. He is a very young man.
LAMB: John Dickinson?
MAIER: I can't give you the ages very quickly like that. I don't have them in my head. But they're roughly--they're young men. They are young men at this point in their lives.
LAMB: We've got three names. We got to have at least six at the table.
MAIER: Well, Dickinson might be fun to talk about. Now Dickinson's going to be on the other side. Dickinson doesn't like independence and he feels compelled for the rest of his life to explain why, because this becomes kind of an embarrassment politically that he--that he didn't approve it. His explanation, we know he made later as well, `I just didn't think the timing was right.' And that seemed a little lame considering that they did pull it off. So you have to have a little bit of--of sympathy for John Dickinson.
LAMB: You got one from Massachusetts, one from Virginia, one from Pennsylvania...
MAIER: One from Penn--well, let's get Benjamin Franklin at the table.
LAMB: Another Pennsylvania man.
MAIER: Another Pennsylvanian, but always a good dinner companion.
LAMB: Yeah.
MAIER: Certainly he will leaven the conversation. There'll be a little humor here.
LAMB: Older?
MAIER: Older. Much older. Much older. Yes. Another generation, really.
LAMB: That's four.
MAIER: OK. I get two more. Well...
LAMB: At least.
MAIER: ...I'd like Roger Sherman because I don't know very much about him. He's on this committee. He's one of the more mysterious members of the committee. I'd like to know what he thought. I'd like to know what he did.
LAMB: What state?
MAIER: So now you're raising all these possibilities. I can ask these people questions that they didn't live to be asked.
LAMB: What state was he from?
MAIER: He was from Connecticut. Let's get Robert R. Livingston at the table, too. Now there's an interesting guy. We...
LAMB: New Yorker?
MAIER: New Yorker. We had the debates in June. He was on the other side. He argued against independence while John Af--Adams and Richard Henry Lee and George Wythe carried the burden of arguing in favor. We know some of the arguments that were raised, but then he got put on the committee to draft the Declaration. Hey, look, Robert R. Livingston has an interesting story to tell.
LAMB: All right. You also write about--you write about biography and paintings and other things that happened back in...
MAIER: Yes.
LAMB: ...the 1800s...
MAIER: Yes.
LAMB: ...and you talk about a man named John Trumbull.
MAIER: Yes. Yes. John Trumbull...
LAMB: Who was he and what did he do?
MAIER: He was an artist--an American artist who painted what is conceivably the most important--what is--I could say undoubtedly the most important painting concerned with independence. And this is what is--was--wh--remembered sometimes as the signing. It is not the signing. It was called "The Declaration of Independence" and what the painting showed was the committee--the drafting committee presenting its report to the president of Congress.
LAMB: We have some video we'll show you and we'll look at the ceiling--the--we had that just a minute ago, but we have the rotunda...
MAIER: OK.
LAMB: ...in the Capitol. And there's one of the...
MAIER: Yes.
LAMB: ...paintings on the wall...
MAIER: Yeah.
LAMB: ...in the rotunda. Millions of Americans have come to visit this.
MAIER: Right. Trumbull painted a series that were specially commissioned. Now this is part of the whole revival of interest in the Revolution that comes after the War of 1812. The first he turned to was indep--the--this--on the Declaration of Independence, it was by far the most popular of the series. It was shown to large audiences in cities before it was finally moved to...
LAMB: It might be easier for you to look over at this monitor right here.
MAIER: ...OK--before it was finally moved to Washington.
LAMB: They're the drafters right there?
MAIER: They are indeed. John Adams. More mysterious figures here. One is...
LAMB: Either Robert Livingston or Sherman.
MAIER: Robert--Robert Livingston or Sherman, indeed. The most prominent figure is, of course, Thomas Jefferson.
LAMB: And the next one's Ben Franklin as we move over to the right.
MAIER: Franklin as we move to the right, exactly.
LAMB: Sitting at a table with John Hancock. Who was he?
MAIER: He was the president of Congress.
LAMB: Where was he from?
MAIER: And he was from Massachusetts.
LAMB: You can see then, I believe, it's Mr. Thomson there, the secretary, standing.
MAIER: Yes. OK.
LAMB: And that painting, again, is in the rotunda of the Capitol.
MAIER: It is. Now it shows a large num--probably a far larger number of the members of the Second Continental Congress than were actually present. John Adams later criticized that painting. He called it a `shin' piece because it showed everybody's knees, I think. And he said it was part of the evolving myth--historical myth that was starting to become apparent in the 1820s; that there were more people there were more people there because we don't know how many people were actually there when the Declaration was presented to Congress--the draft was presented to Congress. We don't really know altogether how many were there on the Fourth of July because they didn't keep attendance. The document wasn't actually signed until August 2nd, and then people came in and signed later so that there are probably a larger number of ignatories than were there to mak--to--for--present for the original vote either on independence on July 2nd or on the Declaration itself on the Fourth.
LAMB: In 1776, what was the atmosphere in this country? How many people were here and what was the body of control? What was the legislative body?
MAIER: Oh, probably about two and a half million people, a small--by our standards, of course, a small body of popul--body of people. There are 13 colonies who are uniting for independence. The government is in a state of disarray. Some of these colonies still have their colonial governments in place, but not very many. In one colony after another revolutionary governments have taken the place, and they usually--taken the place of the regular official crowned government. And they normally took the place--took the form of an elected legislature, which wasn't called a legislature if it was extralegal; it would be a convention or a congress. So these bodies of elected delegates, and--if you will, of the people, were the operational government in most colonies.

Now a couple still had the old legal governments again. Of course, Connecticut and Rhode Island were ever--all officials were always elected; they retained their traditional government. The royal governor remained a long time in Maryland and other places. So it's a kind of a mishmash. But all of these colonies are sending delegations to the Continental Congress. The Continental Congress--the Second Continental Congress, which first convenes right after Lexington-Concord on May 10th, 1775, is a kind of a jerry-built institution.
LAMB: Where is it meeting?
MAIER: It's meeting in Philadelphia. It isn't meant to be a government. It becomes the first government of the United States. But it--the delegates who were elected there probably thought they were going to be like the members of the First Continental Congress: just come together to discuss the situation, to see what could be done, to make some grand policy statements. And they probably expected they'd be able to go home in under two months, like the delegates to the First Congress were. But the situation's entirely changed as result of Lexington and Concord.

The Congress finds itself, de facto, the government of, for all practical purposes, a nation at war. So very soon they're--have to make decisions for the military; they're making decisions for Indian affairs. One topic after another falls on their agenda and they become, in fact, the government of a country to be, if you will.
LAMB: When you decided to do this book, how did you go about it?
MAIER: Well, I--it wasn't at first what I thought--what it has become. I thought I was writing just a very short book that was supposed to, you know, put on paper ideas I already had that would be a teaching book for advanced high school students and maybe lower-level college students. But then I-you know, I just didn't want to write a book like most of those that already were well-known on--on the Declaration of Independence. They all focused on the political thought or the political theory that seemed --to give--to actual--to be expressed in the second paragraph.

As I say, as I came to this topic, I thought those were quite ordinary ideas; that it really wasn't what was important about the Declaration, wasn't a very good way of getting into the political thought of the time. And it had been written on anyway. I wanted to find some other way of going about it. And it seemed to me, how could you--and--and the Declaration had been so glorified. How--was there some way we could sort of get it down to earth? And I thought comparisons are always very useful, so I started poking around to see what we find. And I started coming across these state and local--what I call now the other declarations of independence, statements written by people in town meetings in Massachusetts or county meetings in Maryland or Virginia.

The ordinary people on this local event--men, of course, because men were pol--politics was confined to men at this point--would meet, they'd discuss the issues, they drew up documents that affirmed their support of independence and told their representatives to this--their state legislators to support it, to try to get the instructions sent to the delegates to Congress changed so that they could vote for independence. But they not only stated their views, they explained them. And they were, in some cases, very moving and very eloquent documents.
LAMB: Was there a...
MAIER: And they were lost.
LAMB: Was there a document in there that particularly got your attention...
MAIER: Well, you know, one...
LAMB: ...from the state...
MAIER: ...one really sticks in my mind, maybe because I had heard of the town, but it was one of the first I encountered--was from a town called Ashby, Massachusetts, which is sort of north central Massachusetts, not a major town then. And mostly they paraphrased the question that was submitted to them by the general court, but they said, `If Congress decides to vote for independence, then we, the inhabitants of Ashby, will most solemnly defend that decision with our lives and fortunes.' And it was very moving. I mean, these farmers who, in the boondocks, by our standards, had utter confidence that their opinion made a difference in the--in the course of human affairs. And it was expressed with an eloquence--a kind of a simple eloquence that I found very moving.
LAMB: So you did the local and the states--or the colonies at the time, that--the local documents. What else did you do in this book that's different?
MAIER: Well, I needed to somehow figure out how they fit into the story, why they were important. They were important because this government of the United States called the Second Continental Congress didn't have a written constitution. What limited what it could do were the instructions they received--the delegations received from their states. They couldn't do anything that a majority of delegates were not authorized to do. So the real fight over independence was over getting proper instructions that would allow the delegates to vote for it. And I had to fit that into the story. I had to--it's the politics of independence that seem to me very interesting.

And, you know, there were inadvertent discoveries in the course of doing that. I mean, we had a kind of a h--why did independence have, and I think a lot--happen? I think a lot of accounts have a kind of a magic bullet simplification account. And there's one man I didn't put at that table, and I don't think I'd want him there, actually: Thomas Paine. Thomas Paine made an important contribution, but I'm not sure he'd feed into the conversation...
LAMB: Why?
MAIER: ...and the chemistry of the conversation. Well, he was very anxious to claim credit for independence, but he wasn't part of this political process in a direct way. It's the delegates--I have questions to ask the delegates to the Congress. Of course, he published "Common Sense" in January 1776, and it did open a public debate over that issue. There was a kind of a silence reigned. I mean, people were hesitant to face up to it, although the events were going in that direction. But it's published right after news of a s--of the king's speech to Parliament in October 1775, where he says, `These Americans, whatever they say, they're trying to be independent.'

The Congress says, `Oh, we'--somebody in Congress stands up and says, `We should disavow that,' and the others say, `Wait a minute, let's just think this through.' It's--oh--an important moment, in other words, that the newest com--and they'd also heard that, as the report went, the king's army had--or navy, as it happens, had burned Norfolk, Virginia. And how long are they going to go on saying, `We don't really want independence' as the king piles one atrocity on the other, as they understood it? So it--he--"Common Sense" is published at a point where the information arriving in America is starting to make the Congress think, `You know, maybe that's where we're going.'
LAMB: Did "Common Sense" sell?
MAIER: "Common Sense" sold. It was at a low price. It had a kind of a language that common people could relate to. So it was enormously popular. And there's no doubt in my mind that he helped change popular sentiment in favor of independence. But what was very interesting--and this is a sort of inadvertent discovery--that when the state--when these local people started explaining why they came for independence, the arguments they put forward were not--they came to Paine's conclusion, but they didn't use his argument.
LAMB: And what would he have been like at the table?
MAIER: I have a feeling he might have dominated the conversation a bit. I could be wrong, but I think probably the chemistry of that dinner party would not be ideal.
LAMB: You know, over in the rotunda that we were just talking about is kind of a mock-up gift from England of the Magna Carta, not the original.
MAIER: Right.
LAMB: But the original was brought over here in 1976 as a gift for a year...
MAIER: Yes.
LAMB: ...and put on display. And now there's this kind of elaborate--it's--we'll show it on the screen here in just a moment.
MAIER: Yes. Mm-hmm.
LAMB: I don't see it, but...
MAIER: This is Ross Perot's copy of it.
LAMB: No, this is not.
MAIER: This is not? OK.
LAMB: His copy is down at the archives.
MAIER: This is the one that was here. All right.
LAMB: But this is just one that sits over there that you can look at and you can get a sense of what it is.
MAIER: On the left as you go out of there.
LAMB: Yeah, right.
MAIER: No, this is the one that they showed when Magna Carta was here. This is the real Magna Carta.
LAMB: This is not.
MAIER: OK.
LAMB: This is-- just a display.
MAIER: All right.
LAMB: The original one was there for a while, a 1215 version.
MAIER: OK.
LAMB: And it's back in England, and this is there for people to see. And then there's the Ross Perot Magna Carta down at the archives.
MAIER: Yes. OK.
LAMB: I bring it up for this reason.
MAIER: OK.
LAMB: What was it? What impact did it have on the--our Declaration of Independence?
MAIER: Well, it was 1215. It was negotiated between a group of barons and the king, and it laid out--it laid out their rights that they wanted the king to respect. It was known as Magna Carta, `great charter,' not because it was a powerfully important document; because it was physically very large. And then it's reissued for--several times thereafter. And it isn't, you know, a sacred text until it's revived later, and then it's remembered quite selectively. And that is--there's a passage talks about, you know, the judgment of peers. This becomes trial by jury. Trial by jury did not exist in 1215, but it seems to predict it. This passage is grasped; it's taken --as a fundamental document of basis, a commitment on the part of the king to continue a trial by jury.

A lot that's in that document is simply forgotten. I mean, it's a very long document, and --many of the clauses have to do with the 13th century. They are pretty arcane by our standards. But parts of it were remembered because they were relevant to people later. And by 1776, Americans who accused the king of violating their right to trial by jury might, as William Henry Drayton did in South Carolina, cite Magna Carta. It had become a sacred text by then.
LAMB: Were these men that wrote the Declaration of Independence extraordinary, and it--could it be done by people that we know here today?
MAIER: I believe so. I think that these were--that the gene pool hasn't changed. Americans are fond of saying, and have--say to me quite often, they were--that these American revolutionaries were really a different order of men; they were different than we are. John Adams was very anxious to say that was not true. He became upset at what he called the canonization of men like Washington. He said we needed another--second Protestant Reformation. He really was an old Puritan; this is out of the 1820s. He thought that it was important to grant esteem, fame to those who had contributed in an important way to the founding of their country. But he found the religious imagery unrealistic and discouraging to younger Americans who thought that they were therefore inferior to the fathers. The fathers are put on an enormous pedestal.

And he was at great length to tell younger Americans that his generation was no better than theirs; that, in fact, there was more talent in the country in 1820 than there was in 1776. `There weren't very many talented people around in 1776,' he said, `which made it very easy to realize your ambition.' And there's a k--there's a kind of a healthy antidote, I think, to many of our --mythological tenden--mythologi--izing tendencies in the wisdom of John Adams. If there was more talent in the country in 1820 and the reason was because there were more people and there were more educated people because a large number of schools and colleges were founded right after the Revolution--it was a democratic country--need to have an educated citizenry. More newspapers were out there by which people were able to educate themselves, well, then at present we have still a greater fund of talent.

We have a larger population. We have more educated people. We do ourselves a disservice, I think, by doing more than granting proper attributes--proper attribution to the founders for beginning a system. They were ordinary men who lived in extraordinary times and certainly made memorable contributions. I--we're right, I think, to regard what they did with a certain amount of respect--with a great amount of respect. And I think Jefferson's draftsmanship, within the limits given him by the committee, was brilliant. But we should understand it in the context of the times, and we shuldn't overemphasize what it took to do that because it sort of lets us off the hook. It says they did it all. We're responsible for maintaining that tradition.
LAMB: A couple of weeks ago a fellow who wrote a book about the Constitution is credited, by the way, in your book...
MAIER: Mm.
LAMB: ...of having something to do with your book--who won a Pulitzer Prize, named Jack Rakove.
MAIER: Oh, yes. Jack's an old friend.
LAMB: Now explain to the audience, he--you give him credit for--What?--having read your book and giving you advice?
MAIER: Well, he did; he read the book, and he also wrote a wonderful book earlier that was --on the Continental Congress.
LAMB: What kind of role does a person like that play in the final product of your book?
MAIER: Well, the way historians work is, in some ways, very isolating. I mean, we don't work in teams. We don't work in laboratories. I say I'm of--I often explain my life as I'm somewhat of a hermit. I mean, I love being and poking around in the back reaches --of a major research library.

So you spend your days, you know, alone. You do your work alone. And you'd either go crazy or you find ways --of building human contact in. We talk to colleagues, we talk to friends. And it--in the end, when we produce a manuscript, we get it--at least the way I work and many of my colleagues--where we get it to a point that it's as good as we think we can make it, and then we pass it by people who might know better about some of the things we write about. I'd like to think that by the time something I write is in print, my friends have already told me the worst that is to know about its deficiencies, and that I have remedied them as best I can.

So I sent this book to a handful of people whose opinion I respected for different reasons. Ray Crofterly knew about the Congress, and I knew he could find mistakes. I sent to Ronald Hamway, who, to my mind, is one of the most knowledgeable people on 18th century political thought. And I sent it to an old graduate friend named Dick Brown, who's at the University of Connecticut. And they responded wonderfully by reading the manuscript, giving me suggestions. And the book is much better for their-- help.
LAMB: Where would we have found you? What research library?
MAIER: Widener--Harvard's Widener Library, the Harvard college library, a delightful place to work and, in my field, probably the best place in the world.
LAMB: Where did you write it?
MAIER: I actually wrote it in Widener Library.
LAMB: In--in what way?
MAIER: On a--well, a little laptop computer, you know, pulling the books off the shelf, writing as--writing, putting the books back. It's no...
LAMB: When did you start the actual writing?
MAIER: I have difficulty reconstructing that. I think I have been working on this off and on since 1992, but I think I got down to working on it in a serious way in 1993. And at first, you know, I started reading the documents, reading some of the earlier books, and they were bewildering. It takes a while till you get sufficiently familiar with them that you feel at home--feel enough at home that you understand what the shortcomings are of what's been written and--and what you have to say.
LAMB: Knopf is your publisher.
MAIER: Knopf is my publisher.
LAMB: How many did they print first out?
MAIER: They announced 30,000.
LAMB: Was that what you wanted?
MAIER: Well, that's a by my standards, that's very good. I hope they sell 30,000.
LAMB: You had two former BOOKNOTES endorsers on the back. I want to read what they said. Joseph Ellis of Mt. Holyoke College...
MAIER: Oh.
LAMB: ...said, `Quite simply the fairest, fullest and finest account ever written of how the Declaration of Independence happened.' How do you get someone like Joseph Ellis to write something that strong? Did you ask him?
MAIER: I didn't. I didn't bribe him. I d--the publisher sends him the text and asks him if he would like to make a statement on it. Actually, Joseph Ellis contacted me early on. I had written a paper for a seminar at the Masters Historical Society, and he was working on his biography of Jefferson and was very excited. It was a section that was on these state and local declarations. So we were in contact with each other, and I had seen parts of his book and he'd seen parts of my book. In fact, he was one of the persons that read the manuscript. I think he probably read--he read the whole thing in the end and, again, gave me some very useful feedback.
LAMB: The other fellow I want to quote, by the way, sat where you are sitting and said, when I asked him, `How do--where do you write and how do you write?' he said he writes in the nude. I don't know if that'll--I don't know if that'll change your perception.
MAIER: Ooh. Who's this?
LAMB: Forrest McDonald. He...
MAIER: Oh. Oh, Forrest is wonderful and a wonderful character.
LAMB: I should explain. He says he lives way out in the country and that there's plenty of freedom out there. Anyway, here's what--here's what he said: `A lot of confounded rot has been written about the Declaration of Independence. It is therefore a joy to encounter Pauline Maier's account of how the document came to be and how later Americans sacrilysed'--is that right, sacrilysed?
MAIER: Sacrilysed.
LAMB: Yeah. `Her book is solid, insightful and wise and an utter delight to read.' Now how did you make that connection with Forrest McDonald?
MAIER: Well, again, they just sent the--I think the bound galleys to Forrest and asked if he had any comment to make. I know him, but I know Forrest well enough to say he wouldn't say he liked something if he didn't. He feels no constraint to say--to--make concessions to people. So I take great pride in that statement from somebody whose opinion I respect.
LAMB: There's a point in the book where you say that in 1820 the Declaration of Independence really kicks in.
MAIER: Yes.
LAMB: Why?
MAIER: It's part of the desire of that younger generation to recover their revolutionary heritage. It isn't the only document that's being recovered; a lot of documents are being reprinted at that point so that they aren't lost. But what really gets the America--the Declaration of Independence, I think, on the American agenda is the controversy over slavery. The statement `All men are created equal' obviously contradicted the existence of a system of slavery because slaves held their status by heredity and they were not subject to their masters by consent. That drove the defenders of slavery to contest the Declaration of Independence.

And the statement `All men are' preli--are `created equal' became particularly controversial, and it--it became denied. People like John C. Calhoun said, `This is evidently false. People are not created--they're not born equal. They're born dependent. This is a self-evident falsehood.' Others said, `It's a self-evident lie.' Now if you were an American who had been raised to hold these traditions and this document with a certain amount of reverence, this was offensive. And certainly those who found slavery itself offensive sprung to the defense of the Declaration of Independence. And it became very central to the debates.

It was, in part, the attacks on the Declaration of Independence, I think, that brought Abraham Lincoln back into politics. Here you have a little-known Illinois lawyer who had served one term in Congress before his constituents turned him out because they had rather different views on the m--on the Mexican War than he had. He reads--you can sort of see him in his office with his feet up on the desk, reading the Congressional Globe, the debates over the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which would have extended slavery into what had been free territory. To him, that's wrong.

He sees the attacks on the Declaration that are being raised. He's offended by them, and he goes back into politics. And he is--he contests, in the first instances--instance, Stephen Douglas, who is an Illinois senator who had sponsored and brought into Congress the Kansas-Nebraska bill. He starts attacking him in sort of isolated speeches. By the time he is the Republican candidate for the Senate, of course, they have--we have these famous debates, the Lincoln-Douglas debates. They are almost exclusively one-issue debates that are over the expansion of slavery, and a good bit of the difference turns on the meaning of the Declaration of Independence.

And at this point Lincoln--he's really building on the debates that he's encountered. Indeed, members of the Republican Party have taken the Declaration of Independence as a statement of their founding principles. So he's part of a group of people; he's not isolated. That's very important to know. And he builds on arguments that he's encountered that have been made by others. And he reinterprets the document. What does it mean that all men are created equal?

Well, he made sense of it by taking the first statement and eliding it with the second. `All men are created equal they are--that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.' He confuses the two; he says, `The founders did not say that men are created identical in their appearance or their talents or their physical strength. They are equal in rights. This,' he says, `the founders said and this they meant.' Whether that's what the Declaration said is open to contest, but it doesn't matter. It made sense of the--of the document, and it made it rather more like a bill of rights and a message important for not just black Americans, but for all Americans.
LAMB: You mention that the 1824 tour of the United States by Marquis de Lafayette, a man who was...
MAIER: Yes.
LAMB: ...at 19--was a major general in the Revolutionary War...
MAIER: Yes.
LAMB: ...from France. He came back here at an invitation of the American people to tour around to the 24 states, had an impact on the Declaration of Independence visibility. Why?
MAIER: Well, there's a whole new attention given, of course, to the revolutionary era. This is part of the whole celebration. That the Lafayette visit in particular redirected attention I'm--to the Declaration, I'm not sure. Certainly, it was--it--you--one can see the reverence that the whole tradition had; that people were taking all kinds of--any physical artifact from the Revolution--buttons, whatever--holding them with a great reverence. And--the idea was that all of these relics, as they came to be known as, sort of, for people who knew the story, that it would incite deep feelings of reverence --to the tradition and they'd rededicate themselves to that tradition. And, of course, what they're coming increasingly to think is that the meaning of the revolution is expressed in the Declaration.

Why the Declaration? Well, these principles--the great revolutionary principles that were so commonplace in 1776 weren't in the Constitution. They weren't in the federal Bill of Rights. Many states had written them into their bills of rights. But if you wanted those principles, if those principles were important to you or to your cause, you had to go back to the Declaration of Independence; it's all you had. And the principles were increasingly understood to be important.
LAMB: Who was King George III?
MAIER: King of Great Britain, the king against whom all the charges are leveled in the Declaration of Independence.
LAMB: And there were a lot of charges. How many in total?
MAIER: There were a lot of charges. Well, Jefferson had 21; I think Congress cut it back to 19.
LAMB: Were they--who--what was he like? Do you have any idea--King George III?
MAIER: George III was probably an insecure man, not the smartest man that ever walked on the face of the Earth; a man that was probably somewhat bewildered by the rash of constitutional arguments that the Americans were putting forward. He was certainly deeply dedicated to his country, to his traditions. He was the third of the Hanoverian kings. His father had died. His grandfather was--still spoke with a deep German accent. This man spoke English well, was raised in England. I mean, he was a--he--a dedicated Englishman and stood for the rights of Parliament.

He thought that the welfare of Great Britain turned on its continuing to hold its American colonies. The colonies had become a major purchaser of British goods. That was clear. They had surpassed the West Indies, who were always the preferred colonies earlier on. But the Americans had come to import far more British goods. So he thought, `If we lose the American colonies'--what--that was his greatest nightmare. `If we lose the American colonies, we shall sink back into obscurity and be just a small, insignificant island once again.'
LAMB: You mentioned...
MAIER: So he wanted to be severe in making sure that didn't happen.
LAMB: You mentioned the German connection, and you also suggest in the book that the Americans really got mad when he brought German troops...
MAIER: Absolutely.
LAMB: ...into the Revolutionary War.
MAIER: Absolutely.
LAMB: How'd that happen?
MAIER: Well, it was the way the British actually fought their wars. Rather than using their own people, they liked to use--hire other people's soldiers and especially in a war like this which was of questionable popularity. People were a little hesitant to go shy--go fighting other Englishmen abroad. They would hire the--hire foreign soldiers. And in some ways it was an economical move rather than using their own people. But --to the Americans, this was the ultimate atrocity. He was using foreigners to put them down.
LAMB: How many? Do you know?
MAIER: Numbers I can't give you off the top of my head. Yeah.
LAMB: The Declaration of Independence was signed on roughly what day?
MAIER: On...
LAMB: And--but compare that with when the actual first shot was fired at Lexington and Concord.
MAIER: Well, it's--April 19th, 1775, is the conventional date for the beginning of the War at Lexington and Concord. It's--Congress adopts independence on July 2nd, 1776. It issues the declaration on the 4th. After New York comes in, the Congress then says, `Ah-ha, it is now unanimous declaration of the United States of America,' and orders it put on parchment. And it's only after it's on parchment and is brought back to Congress, and on August 2nd, that they formally sign the document. Now as I said earlier, they don't always sign it on that date. Some people came in later and said, `I'd like to sign the Declaration of Independence.' And Congress doesn't actually circulate a copy of the document with signatures until January 1777.

Why? Well, this was a confession of treason. You were putting your head in the noose. And the war went very, very poorly in 1776. Think of Washington losing on Long Island, retreating up Manhattan, retreating down the Jersey coast, crossing the Delaware. Hey, it looked real bad till the end of the year, till Trenton and Princeton. Only after Trenton and Princeton made it possible to believe that the Americans could have stayed in the field, they might possibly win this war--only then did they circulate the document with their signatures.
LAMB: When you come to Washington and go to the National Archives, is that the actual original document?
MAIER: It is the original signed document in the National Archives, yes.
LAMB: Is it all there that was signed? I mean, all the words are there?
MAIER: It's rather faded at this point. Nobody can read it, not only because you're ushered past it rather quickly, but because it was faded. It wasn't taken care of very well in the early years. It was sort of rolled up, carried around with the Second Continental Congress. And then the State Department kept it, and if people came, they'd pull it out and show it to them. None of this, you know, enormous--What do they call it?--at the Library of Congress--argon caskets, you know, these heavy metal, glass cases that have gas in them without oxygen so that the documents don't decompose. And the Library of Congress keeps them sort of in a refrigerator. It's the most precious documents--none of that.

I mean, they just pulled it out and showed it to you, the real thing. And then they got tired of pulling it out, so they pasted it up on a wall in what was then the patent office, and there it remained for 30 years near a very bright window. It faded. And they spent a considerable amount of time trying to figure out what they could do with it. Modern preservation techniques are really a quite recent development.
LAMB: Would you change the way we display it if you could?
MAIER: No, I wouldn't. I should make clear I'm not saying dismantle a shrine in the National Archives. I think it's a very eloquent testimony to the 20th century. I think that shrine was put together in 1952--opened in 1952. I think the religious imagery tells us a lot of what was important to the country in 1952. We-it advertises the importance of what was different between the United States and, as we saw in the 1950s, the godless communism. I mean, there's religion. There's liberty in these documents. There is capitalism or, you know, free enterprise, if you will. A lot of the brochures talk about which companies contributed to the enterprise. I find that very interesting.

I even find the character of the guards very interesting. I know that after World War II, at first, the--the--the guards were made up of members of the armed forces in succession, and I would think they were almost exclusively white men. At present, there's--when I--visited in 1995, it was a black woman and a black man, civilians. And, of course, the work force of contemporary Washington is highly African-American. But there was something very significant about having them there with this sense of deep reverence; this is their tradition, too. It's the answer to Stephen Douglas, who said the Declaration said all white men are created equal or all British and Americans are created equal. This is their Declaration. Lincoln was right.
LAMB: Here's the cover of the book. It's the story of the making of the Declaration of Independence by MIT Professor Pauline Maier. And we thank you very much for joining us.
MAIER: Thank you.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 2004. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.